Out like gentle lambs to the slaughter
Party leaders hit campaign trail with much food for thought as voters appear keen to sink their teeth in, writes Ronan Fanning
Sunday, Jan 30th: First opinion polls of the campaign in Sunday Independent and Business Post. Both interpreted in same terms: the election is Fine Gael's to lose.
Sunday Independent more favourable: it is up four to 34 (BP says 33), while Labour is down 11 to 24 (BP says 21). There's a "plague on all their houses" attitude to the major parties: both polls give independents/other 15 -- almost as much as Fianna Fail.
Polls seem to have worked wonders for Enda Kenny's confidence as he did better than I've ever seen him on television with Sean O'Rourke on The Week in Politics.
Monday, Jan 31st:
A day of marking time waiting for Brian Cowen's formal announcement in Dail that he's off to the Aras for a dissolution.
Labour and Fine Gael bad mouthing each other. Gilmore looking tetchy. Kenny staying out of sight. Leo Varadkar all over the airwaves as Fine Gael's attack-dog, but suave and urbane with it; also young and good-looking, or is that too ageist and sexist for the politically correct?
Micheal Martin unveils his new frontbench. A motley crew, two-thirds of whom have never been tainted by cabinet office and five of whom aren't even members of the Oireachtas, including the statutory two young women beside his new deputy leader, Mary Hanafin. But impressions of novelty are undone by the resurrection of the disgraced Willie O'Dea.
Then Biffo delivers the coup de grace to the new team, getting tomorrow's headlines by announcing he's not running in the election.
Tuesday, Feb 1st:
Brian Cowen intones the last rites in the 30th Dail having first been subjected to the final and weirdly appropriate humiliation of being introduced by the Ceann Comhairle as the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern!
He begins and ends his speech in Irish, as do the other party leaders. Anois teacht an earraigh! Welcoming spring won't comfort an enraged electorate. Why does nobody ever ask exactly how much all this ritual obeisance to the first official language is costing the state as it teeters on the brink of bankruptcy? But Irish, of course, is the last sacred cow that must be preserved from Colm McCarthy's abbatoir and preened, pampered and fattened whatever the cost -- now more than ever with Sinn Fein resurgent and the centenary of 1916 looming.
Cowen speaks well; with dignity and without bitterness; relieved of the burden of party leadership he at last speaks as a Taoiseach should. Not so the other party leaders, all of whom descend to delivering party political broadcasts. Kenny too long and diffuse. Gilmore's a full-frontal attack on Fine Gael, which he tries to lump together with Fianna Fail in his fiction of a "Celtic Tory consensus". Gormley names Kenny as the next Taoiseach and Gilmore as the next Tanaiste, to Labour's outrage. He must be dreaming about Fine Gael winning enough seats to form a government with the support of right-wing independents and the Greens, who are so persuaded of their own rectitude that they can't accept that the voters are going to annihilate them for keeping Fianna Fail in office for so long.
Wednesday, Feb 2nd:
Two more polls, Indo this morning and Red C poll later. Fine Gael at 30 (-4) and 37 (+3); Labour 24 (n/c) and 17 (-2); Fianna Fail 16 (n/c) and 18 (+2); Sinn Fein 13 (+3) and 12; Others 15 & 11; Greens bumbling along the bottom at 1 and 3.
Party campaigns launched today. Fine Gael's marred by a late start and an attempt to curtail questions from the offended hacks. Labour's all glitter and glitz at the Guinness Hop Store.
Eamon Gilmore still oozing grumpiness as he does his Mr Angry number. He doesn't understand that voters don't like anger because they can't equate it with the competence they so desperately crave and have for so long been denied.
Joan Burton takes a leaf out of Gilmore's Mr Angry book on tonight's Prime Time in bad-tempered exchanges with Caoimhghin O Caolain. The root of her problem may be the same as her leader's: when Labour was running ahead of Fine Gael in the opinion polls, he thought he'd be Taoiseach and she thought she'd be Minister for Finance. The identity of the Minister for Finance in the next government will arguably be more important than the identity of the Taoiseach, and now 38 per cent think Michael Noonan would be the best Minister for Finance compared with 16 per cent for Joan Burton -- she doesn't even have the support of many intending Labour voters.
Thursday, Feb 3rd
More good news for Fine Gael in the Irish Times poll. FG 33 (+3), Lab 24 (-1), FF 15 (-2), Others 15 (+4!) and SF 12 (-3). The jump in support for others shows the volatility of public opinion, as does 38 per cent saying they may still change their mind on how they will vote. But it's cold comfort for Fianna Fail if the drop in Micheal Martin's satisfaction rating to 23 per cent means their bounce is already over.
Kenny's confidence again apparent in a press conference in which, to the amazement of the assembled hacks, he comes across as both good-humoured and authoritative.
"Gilmore for Taoiseach" posters now sprouting on lamposts as well as on the jackets of his party workers. But the so-called Gilmore Gale looks more like Gilmore Guff as he bangs on about change and renegotiating the bailout on the day when Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the ECB, is saying "apply the plan".
Meanwhile, Mary Lou McDonald puts her foot in her mouth by protesting at the "political class" putting money into the banks. If the Shinners still aren't part of the "political class" what are they?
The revolutionary class? The neo-paramilitary class?
Friday, Feb 4th
Campaign hotting up after a dull week, but a low-key campaign is tailor-made for Fine Gael as the front-runner. Gilmore dismisses Jean-Claude Trichet as a civil servant who must do what he's told, a statement as factually inaccurate -- the ECB's independence from political interference is constitutionally guaranteed -- as it is politically inane.
Enter Ruairi Quinn from stage right, pouring balm to soothe middle-class voters repelled by his leader's antics. Gilmore's statement that voters had a choice between "Frankfurt's way or Labour's way", Quinn assures us, was only the kind of rhetoric that was "part and parcel of an election campaign. . . We are not saying that unilaterally we are going back to tear up the [EU-IMF] deal because some parts of the deal are non-negotiable". Indeed. Quinn, of course, unlike Gilmore and the other refugees from the Workers' Party, is old Labour; he is also a former Minister for Finance -- and a good one at that -- who knows what he's talking about.
But the big news is the Enda Kenny-Vincent Browne row about the TV3 debate, which looks like providing welcome fodder for next week's diary. My abiding image is Micheal Martin, looking like a priesteen who's wandered off the set of Father Ted, reciting "I love Vincent Browne". Pass the sick bag.
Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin